I am an artist based in Scotland, although most of my work happens all around the world and I recently finished my PhD. I do events based projects with people: I work with people rather than things if that makes sense.
Originally, I did a degree in Writing and Gender Studies and I thought I was going to go be a writer in Canada… but I’ve now lived in Scotland more than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life. After I graduated, I had a lot of student loans, and in Canada, you have to pay off your student loan, regardless of how much you earn. My mum was teaching in the Middle East at the time and said: “Why don’t you come and teach English here, earn a bunch of money and pay off the loan.” So I headed off and applied to teach English at a school. But, because my Writing degree is technically a Fine Art degree, when I got to this school, they said: “Oh, we noticed on your CV that you’ve got a Fine Art degree, can you teach art [instead of English]? And because I needed the money, I went: “Uh… yes, sure! I can teach art…!”
So I became an art teacher! It was through that process, however, that I realised that with art, I could do what I wanted to do better than I could in writing. There was a lot of ideas in art, a lot of relationships to people and writing was very solitary… so after a while, I applied to The Glasgow School of Art for their MFA programme. I chose Glasgow because of a boy… and now that boy is my husband, so it all worked out!
When I got to Glasgow School of Art, I had only really been doing art for about 2 or 2 and a half years. So I was kind of a late starter – very unexperienced and unexposed. I felt very insecure because I wasn’t an artist in my head. I was trying to compete with people who knew how to make things and do things. I struggled a lot, but I remember John Calcutt, bless him, saying: Anthony, work with your strengths. And I remember thinking to myself: “Well I can’t paint; I can’t draw; I’m not a very good photographer; I can’t make films; don’t make sculptures. I’m good with people. I like people. I’ll work with people!” Maybe it was my eternal optimism.
They let me in, despite my lack of experience. I was probably not very eloquent or able to talk about stuff in a way that other artists could. My partner’s brother-in-law was working at the GSA at the time, and I have a suspicion that he was able to say to them: “Take some time with this guy: he may come across as a bit bonkers but actually if you dig down there might be something there.” Either way, I managed to get in. Possibly it was just tenacity because I had applied with this massive portfolio. I had sent a knife in the post and apparently it almost stabbed Sam Ainsley, the Course Leader, in the leg when she opened it. I mean: the context of knives in Glasgow! It’s a bit sketchy!
It was sort of bold and naive. You know, this job looks forward to the future. I see it in new artists. Those are the ones who I think: “Holy crap, there’s something there, you’re exciting!” You might not know, but you’re going to try this anyway. And that’s wonderful. It is that naivety and boldness together. I didn’t see myself as an artist until I started getting funding. When you are a new artist, you don’t know. You’re just trying to reach out. So when someone who has an authority actually goes: “I’m going to give you something because I support that” you go: “Oh my god!”
I think a lot of my peers took pity on me. I think because they recognised I wasn’t really an artist, or I was just developing as one. But, you know, having someone like Sam Ainsley heading up MFA was amazing. She was able to come into your studio and I don’t know what she said, but she would leave and you would feel so good about yourself and what you were doing. And having those… not authority figures, but people who knew way more than I did, giving you the encouragement: I think that’s what made me want to go on. And the peer groups were able to support you to say: “Well, that was pretty shit… why don’t you try this instead?!” Really generous.
"I would tell anyone thinking of applying for a Dewar award, do it, but do it with honesty. I think its about supporting unique Scottish voices, so be a unique Scottish voice. Know what is out there and know how you’re different."
I think being on the MFA, being able to try out a few shows, having group events and having that structure, helped build up some idea of who I am and what I do. But, then the course finishes, and you’re left with that utterly bleak, post-graduation depression which no one speaks about. It is my personal quest to tell every single student that it’s real! It exists! Plan for it! Post-graduation depression: you know that idea where you’ve been supported, you had that peer group, you had a focus, you had all of that stuff and then overnight – boom! – it’s gone. I didn’t know what to do with myself. All I did was apply for things because I didn’t know what to do with my life. I thought: “I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m putting myself out there.” But there’s a thing about going for it honestly, and going for it in your own way rather than thinking I’m going to fit into this ideal of an artist, or that’s what these people want.
I had a job at the CCA. I also got a job working for the Environmental Health Department of Glasgow City Council, working in a really horrific, really constrained Call Centre. And I remember having a small show in Norway, around that time, and saying to my boss: “I’ve only been here three-months, but I really need to go to this show and I’ll take unpaid leave etc.” And she said: “No.” So, I said: “Well I have to quit, I want to become an artist. I don’t want to work in a Call Centre.” I think it was at that point I applied for the Dewar Award.
I think getting the award was about validation. But a lot of it allowed me to do work in ways that I couldn’t have made before, which was sort of grabbing a snippet here and there, or doing something on a weekend. I’m lucky, I don’t have a studio so I don’t have those overheads/costs. But, snatching time at the weekend, when you’re exhausted and you can’t think: that didn’t work. So getting funding was a chance to actually go make something. It was going to allow me to do something substantial.
I think Sam Ainsley was one of my referees and Francis McKee at CCA was the other one. I think having those people who are like gatekeepers. They’re trusted, and who are able to say: I vouch for that person. It’s not that you’re not worthy of respect without these people, because you are, but having someone like Francis or Sam vouch for you: people will take you more seriously. They know you’re not just into it for shits-and-giggles. It says: “here’s someone who is serious about what they’re doing, even though they’re a bit bonkers.”
I hope I also got the award because I was applying for something different. And –maybe it was just in the zeitgeist at the time – but, I wanted to look outwards and what my practice could do in the world. I didn’t want it to be self-reflective. For me, it’s about how did art relate to other people, rather than just myself.
An award is more than just the money. That it’s supported by a group of people who have weight and substance and they have resonance, and who are able to say we believe in this person. That belief is the strongest thing, but it’s a challenge to do good things, too. If a big funding body decides to fund you, you go: “Oh, great! But, now I have to live-up to that belief and prove it worthy.”
I had a lot of in-kind support from colleagues, too. Person A has a film camera I can borrow, or Person B can give me that thing: There is a lot of barter-and-trade that was going on. But also that’s a Glasgow kind of thing. You know those networks; you need to be proactive with them. Thinking about it now, I have no idea how I survived!
I’m at a similar stage now, especially related to the PhD. I’m now at that point where I’m going: “Well, I’ve had three years of support, what do I do now?” I Look up from all that writing and making and I have to think: “Oh. Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life.” You have to be very careful about the choices you make to keep sane.
The award from Dewar allowed a residency process, and through that, I achieved an understanding about my work. I could do things which I didn’t know I could do. So suddenly: I had a chunk of time where I could work and do stuff with a bunch of people in that period of time. And, since then, I’ve been on loads of residencies and that’s what I’ve based my practice on. I’ve been lucky enough to work in weird and wonderful places around the world. I went to Pakistan: That’s probably the furthest away.
There, I built the Ship of Hope. It was a public art project, and I was commissioned to make a piece of public art. I was really excited and I got there and suddenly went: “Hang on! I’m not the public!” I mean, I was white, from a Christian country…what was I doing being commissioned to make public art?! So I developed a temporary, ephemeral sculpture that was site-responsive. This really impacted my practice and became a central approach to my work. But with site-responsive work, it’s hard to show people what you’re going to do, because it doesn’t exist yet! You have an example of what you do before, and I’ve now worked in Johannesburg and London. I’ve worked in Finland, Canada, North Carolina.
This approach was maybe in the zeitgeist anyway. There was a shift towards discussing what is Art’s role in the public realm. That was really, really beneficial to me because that’s what I was interested in anyway. But I was also able to recognize it and benefit from it. Which, maybe it’s arrogant of me to say, but maybe other people didn’t do that or haven’t done that, and maybe that’s the talent or the skill: being to recognize your own context and work from it.
Now I sometimes work with Glasgow School of Art, doing a lot of their second year stuff and I’m teaching in Rotterdam. There were 40 2nd year students when I first started teaching at Glasgow, five years ago. Now there’s 70, so it’s way more of them coming out the other end of Art School, and that’s difficult. Difficult for institutions as well. And you know Glasgow School of Art have got that “25% extra” group that started out in response to there being 25% more students but the same amount of staff. These students are creating, all of their own volition, a really important response to the institution, and I feel that is wonderful. They’ve asked me to work with them and I’m really honoured.
But, I also think its the same way that I had people like Sam and Francis supporting me. That’s my job now. I have to do that. You have to pass that baton on because it was passed to you.
I would tell anyone thinking of applying for a Dewar award, do it, but do it with honesty. I think its about supporting unique Scottish voices, so be a unique Scottish voice. Know what is out there and know how you’re different. My gut says that it is what Dewar would like to see. They would like to see someone going: “Here is the future that you didn’t imagine.”